Reviewers have not been kind to Norman Mailer's 30th book, a first-person account of the life and death of Jesus called "The Gospel According to the Son."

Literary critic Frank Kermode, in the New York Review of Books, proclaimed it "a book of considerable intellectual force" but said that infusing Jesus "with a strong dose of Mailer {was} in some measure another self-advertisement." Novelist Reynolds Price, in the New York Times Book Review, applauded Mailer's bold use of the first person but was puzzled by his general lack of inventiveness. "Even the most conservative Christian should find little to reject," Price wrote.

The New Republic crucified Mailer, portraying him on its May 12 cover in a crown of thorns beneath the headline: "He is finished." The Washington Post's Book World was almost as forceful. "I don't like negative reviews, nor am I a Mailer-basher," critic Steven Moore wrote. "But this new one leaves me no choice. It's that bad."

What was Mailer thinking? Why would this literary giant, a swaggering two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, subject himself to possible humiliation? "I knew some of the reviews would be good. Some would be terrible. I took that for granted," Mailer said in an interview in Georgetown last week.

But a compulsion, a desire really, got the best of him, he said. The one-liners he's been serving up to audiences and reporters only begin to explain his motives:

"There are a hundred writers who could do a better job, and I'm one of them."

"Perhaps I wanted to show people I could write a simple book."

"I wanted to retell it the way all writers want to retell a classic story."

The deeper reasons begin with Mailer's own spiritual search, a sense of emptiness.

Growing up a Jew in "Christian America," Mailer said, he never experienced the full impact of the antisemitism that so affected his parents' generation. "On the other hand, I never felt I was totally part of this country," the 74-year-old writer said. "I always had this nose-against-the-glass feeling that those Christians have something I'm curious about."

This void nagged him for years until an experience in Arkansas made him think that being a Jew just might make him an appropriate interpreter for the story of Jesus, the "keel" of Western Civilization, as he calls the Gospel narrative. About 10 years ago, he was visiting at a Freewill Baptist Church where his father-in-law is a deacon. Norris Church, Mailer's sixth wife, had told him he was the first Jew she had ever met, and he assumed the same was true for the members of the adult Sunday school class he attended.

"They were delighted," he said. "Because after reading about the Lord Jesus all these years, they finally had met one of {his people's} descendants. My wife said afterwards I was making too much of it, that they're used to being very cordial to visitors. But I had a feeling there was a touch of something beyond that, that maybe I had some special gift to interpret" the Old Testament.

It was then only a short leap to the New Testament, he said, for in living Jesus's life in imagination, he learned how "extremely Jewish" Jesus is: "He worries all the time, he anticipates, he broods on what's going on. There's an immense sense of responsibility."

And the author, who hated Hebrew school and gave up religion after his bar mitzvah, "realized for the first time in many, many years how Jewish I am."

Mailer credits Pope John Paul II for piquing his interest in the New Testament, especially when he read the pope's best-selling personal reflections, "Crossing the Threshold of Hope," published three years ago.

In the mid-1980s, as past president of PEN, a national association of writers, Mailer nominated the pope for honorary membership (he didn't get it) after publication of the encyclical "Sollicitudo Rei Socialis," or "On Social Concerns." The work tells of the social evils of both the capitalist West and the communist East, before the end of the Cold War, and was "written in a beautiful style that was partly ecclesiastical and partly Marxist," Mailer said.

Mailer said it showed him that the pragmatic ideals of Christianity might be compatible with socialism. And it gave him the impetus for playing up Jesus's "powerful, radical spirit" in the novel as the Nazarene ousts the money-changers from the temple and spars with religious leaders.

Said Mailer: "When I began writing this book, I said, I'm going to hew to the story as long as I possibly can but . . . finally I'm not writing the book to make a pious contribution to the state of affairs. I'm writing this book to express something I feel deeply.' "

Those ideas have to do with a money-driven society protected by laws -- the forces behind the men who angered Jesus and were most angered by him, the Pharisees.

"The entire money culture we live in is populated by Pharisees," whom Mailer describes as those "interested first in money, in wealth, and secondarily who feel a little guilty, a little uneasy about spending their lives acquiring money" and therefore "observe all the laws in order to have a safety net over themselves in case they are making a mistake."

Socialism, underscored with Christian faith, could be an answer to many societal problems, especially homelessness and poverty, Mailer said.

"Capitalism is the work of the Devil," he said.

And Satan gets grand attention in "Gospel According to the Son." He's handsome, he's smart, he's shrewd, and he wields as much power in the world as God. That's why Jesus dies on the cross, Mailer said.

"I have never believed in the notion that God just let him get up there and suffer, to no point," Mailer said. "I cannot comprehend it in human terms, certainly, but it's beyond me in divine terms."

He believes it's a ruse that the Crucifixion was part of God's plan. God was smart enough to counter the Crucifixion with the doctrine of salvation, he said. But he calls Jesus's death God's "one great failure" in the biblical story, as the Holocaust is God's great failure in human history. God is all-good but not all-powerful, but he also "is doing his or her best," he said.

Mailer speculated that there just might be a "higher god" above the biblical God and Satan. "God and the Devil have warring notions of the human vision. Each has a vision for humanity. So the upper god says, All right, you two should go down there and fight it out.' "

Mailer's goal as a writer was to explore the humanity of the Son of God. So he plotted Jesus's "life line" as closely as he could, eliminating conflicting elements but leaving relatively intact the teachings and miracles -- the raising of Lazarus, the walk on water, the healings of the blind and leprous, the casting out of demons.

But Jesus-Mailer tones down the miracles, telling how his early biographers "exaggerated" his abilities and how each miracle drained energy from him. He also feels remorse for rejecting his family (the "Who is my mother, who is my brethren?" scene in Mark) and for withering the fig tree when it bore no fruit for him. He carries a load of guilt for the babies killed by Herod's men when they were trying to kill Jesus. And he has lustful thoughts about the beautiful adulteress he saves from being stoned (Mailer wrongly calls her Mary Magdalene).

Today, emphasizing Jesus's role as Savior "is not necessary and may be counterproductive," keeping people from "facing reality," Mailer said. In the eternal battle between Good and Evil, wanting to be "saved" is selfish, a cop-out, he said. "My idea is that we are there to help God and God is there to help us, and that it's a vital collaboration."

Reincarnation makes more sense. "Souls are continually reborn and presumably get better or worse," he said.

Over the course of a long conversation, the meanderings of Mailer's spirited, peripatetic intellect -- the genesis of "Gospel" -- begin to make sense. And despite critical disdain for it, Mailer seems pleased with his book.

Jesus "is at the center of the American ethic," the author said. "And if he's going to be our religious leader, and I say our' -- even though I'm not a Christian -- it seemed to me maybe I'd perform a very small patriotic service by making him slightly more available." CAPTION: Norman Mailer, a Jew, on his retelling of Christian history: "I'm not writing the book to make a pious contribution to the state of affairs. I'm writing this book to express something I feel deeply."